Who was the best F1 driver/team each year?

F1 is, at its core, a sport that combines the efforts of drivers and their teams. It is possible to separate the two using a mathematical approach. Here we’ll look at championships from 1985 and compare the actual results with driver’s performances. (This seemingly arbitrary cut off date is because data from earlier is still being analysed.)

Best Performing Driver

It’s well known that the car has a bigger impact in F1 than the driver. As such, it’s often debated if the world champion is the most deserving driver on the grid. Whilst that question is not directly answered here let’s compare the drivers champion with the driver the model thinks performed the best that year:

Fig 1: Top performing driver each year from 1985.

The results paint a picture where an era is defined by just 1 or 2 drivers. Prost, Schumacher and Alonso are the 3 most successful drivers, with Senna and Hamilton also winning multiple titles. Its also noteworthy that in only ⅓ of years did the most deserving driver win the championship. The correlation between performance and championships has worsened in recent years, with only 1 of the 14 championships going to the best performing driver. Whilst this sounds like a negative, it could be attributed to the fact that driving standards in F1 have improved over time, which naturally means that differences in car performances become more important.

Fig 2: Most successful drivers by years as top performer.
Notes on the top performers

Alonso: The model puts Alonso as the top performer a whopping 13 times; a stark contrast to his record as a double world champion. Effectively 2002 is considered Schumacher’s last year where he was at the top of his game (although he was still performing at a very high standard in 2003-2006), and the model concludes Alonso to be the best driver on the grid in the post-Schumacher era. His domination of Fisichella, Massa and Räikkönen during this period speaks for itself, although Hamilton and Vettel get close to Alonso’s performance level at times. 2004 may seem unusual given that Alonso was outpaced by Trulli in the first half of the season, but Alonso still outscored Trulli in their races together, and went on to dominate new teammate Villeneuve at the end of the year. One last important point is that in 3 of his top performer years, Alonso was racing against a teammate who never properly faced another driver (2008, 2009 and 2018). This means that his ranking in these years is a bit more uncertain than usual, and are more based on what performance level is expected of Alonso. The same could also be said of 2017, where Ricciardo makes a surprise entry.

Schumacher: The multitude of titles for Schumacher is not particularly surprising, as it is well established that the Ferrari cars he drove in the mid-late 90s were not as good as the dominant Williams and McLaren cars. The 1999 season is a missed opportunity for him, due to him missing half of the season and playing a supporting role on his return. What is more surprising than his 90s performances is the fact that he is not considered the top performer in all of his championship years. In 2003 Schumacher won the title in what the model considers the 3rd best car, which demonstrates that his level was indeed very high, despite being pipped in performance ratings by Alonso. In 2004 Schumacher was very strong in the first two-thirds of the season, but was beaten by teammate Barrichello towards the end of the season once the title was secure. The model gives the title of best performer in 2004 to Alonso by a small margin, but things might have been different if Schumacher were fighting for the title in the seasons latter stages. Finally, Schumacher’s return to F1 with Mercedes is generally thought of as being unsuccessful, but the model thinks that he was still performing at a more than respectable level, even if he was no longer in contention for a top performance.

Prost and Senna: Whilst Alonso and Schumacher are considered the best of their generation, the model concludes that there were two titans in the mid 80s to early 90s. Prost is considered to be a slightly stronger driver, and correspondingly has more top performances. However, the results here count all races, which the driver’s championship at the time did not. Senna would definitely take Prost’s top performances title in 1988 if only the top 11 results were counted (although I am not sure how to fairly implement such a system into the model).

Hamilton: Everyone knows that Hamilton is phenomenally talented, but it’s also clear that he’s had the benefit of superior machinery in recent years. He’s the only rookie top performer, beating Alonso by the slimmest of margins in 2007. Since then he’s always been one of the top performers, but only in 2015 (when Alonso was out scored by his teammate) is he once again considered to have performed the best of everyone. It’s also interesting to note that Hamilton was not considered to be the best driver in either year in which Alonso did not race (2019-2020). This suggests that the young talent in F1 is very good indeed, as Hamilton has hardly off his game in either year.

Alesi, Frentzen and Ricciardo: These 3 may seem like unusual choices, but it shows that anyone on the grid can potentially perform strongly. In the cases of Alesi and Ricciardo (and arguably Frentzen too) it wasn’t even their most successful year in terms of results, they simply performed extremely well with the material they were given. It could be argued that Alesi benefited from Prost not racing in 1992, whilst Frentzen benefited from Schumacher’s injury in 1999. However, they still had to outperform many other talents to secure their positions. Ricciardo, meanwhile, outscored Max Verstappen in the sister Red Bull. Given what he know of Verstappen’s ability, only a high level performance would achieve this.

Verstappen and LeClerc: Both are extreme talents, and they are (along with Sainz, Hamilton and Norris) in the top 5 performers of 2021. They won deserved #1 spots (although the model is still adjusting to determine how much of LeClerc’s 2020 performance was due to Vettel underperforming) and will probably have several more between them in the coming years. Data on other young drivers is still coming in (particularly for Norris and Russell), but right now these are the two young drivers the model rates best.

World Champions that weren’t top performers

There are 9 world champions since 1985 that have never been ranked as a top performer. They are Piquet, Mansell, Hill, Villeneuve, Häkkinen, Räikkönen, Button, Vettel and Rosberg. Here’s a bit more info on each of the world champions.

Mansell’s best year (of those looked at) is 1986, when he dramatically lost the championship with a puncture in the final race. He is considered an above average driver, but never threatens the #1 spot for any year, due to the presence of both Senna and Prost. Piquet is similarly ranked as Mansell, and has a peak of the years looked at in 1990, with 1987 (a championship year for him) not far behind.

Hill and Villeneuve never get close to Schumacher’s ranking, but are also considered above average drivers. Hill’s peak came in 1994, whereas Villeneuve’s highest ranked year is 1997 (his championship year). If we disqualify Schumacher for his actions in Jerez, then Villeneuve does indeed take this one title.

Häkkinen is a driver that some may view as Schumacher’s equal, but the model suggests that he had a consistent car advantage across 1998-2000. Häkkinen’s ranking comes mostly from a comparison with Coulthard, who is not ranked particularly highly. His first championship year in 1998 is considered to be his peak. It is notable that even when Schumacher missed half of the season in 1999, Häkkinen is still not the top performer, although it was also not his best year.

Perhaps some might consider Räikkönen at this best to be Alonso’s equal, but the model disagrees. The mid-2000s are indeed considered his peak, but like Häkkinen he suffers from Coulthard being ranked relatively low. Subsequent comparisons with teammates Alonso and Vettel have also not been favourable to Räikkönen.

Button famously managed to outscore both Hamilton and Alonso as teammates. He comes close to being the top performer in 2015 (where he outscored Alonso), and also has a strong year in 2011 (out scoring Hamilton), and 2007 (where his woefully uncompetitive car languished at the back of the grid). His championship year is actually ranked as below average for him, due to his struggles under pressure as the year progressed.

Vettel is rated quite highly by the model, but his main teammates across his career (Webber and Räikkönen) are not thought of as particularly special, which bring his rankings down. His Ferrari years are considered his peak, and he comes close to being ranked #1 in both 2015 and 2017.

Rosberg is also quite highly ranked, but never really threatens the #1 spot. His championship year in 2016 is considered to be close to his peak performance, but is just nudged out by 2009 and 2010.

The first thing to note is that all of these drivers are considered to be above average for the era they race, although by varying degrees. Interestingly, most of them did not achieve their peak performance in the championship year(s). In every single case these drivers are considered to have a car advantage when they won the title, although of course winning a title is much more difficult than simply landing in a competitive car (as Bottas, Barrichello, Webber etc. would attest to). The simple explanation for why these drivers weren’t top performers in their title years is that they’re generally not considered as good as others on the grid at the time. Not many would pick Mansell and Piquet over Senna and Prost. Likewise with Hill and Villeneuve vs Schumacher, or Button and Rosberg vs Hamilton and Alonso.

Top team performances

We can do a similar analysis on teams by ignoring the effect of different drivers.

Fig 3: Best teams each year from 1985

Firstly, we can see that the best team is much more likely to win the championship than the best driver is. It’s now been 15 years since a team with the best car failed to win the constructors championship (Ferrari in 2006). This confirms the idea that the car is generally more important as a differentiator than the driver in F1, particularly in modern F1. However, it is also clear that the driver can have a significant influence. It is not a coincidence that on the four times between 1994 and 2003 where an inferior car won the constructor’s title, Schumacher was driving for the team. Incidentally, this also suggests that the idea of the whole team at Benetton/Ferrari being set up around Schumacher, with an intentionally weak teammate, is not particularly valid.

F1 metrics comparison

A few years ago, F1metrics posted a similar (and more detailed) article of #1 ranks of his own model. These 2 models are independent and use different criteria to asses drivers, so there is no inherent reason why they should agree. However, of the 30 years that are compared by both, they result in the same #1 driver performance 28 times. In both Alesi and Frentzen get a top yearly performance. Alonso gets far more top performances than he has championships too, and in neither do Hill, Häkkinen, Villeneuve, Mansell, Piquet, Button or Räikkönen get titles.

The 2 differences in top driver performances are shown below:

– 1993 goes to Schumacher, not Senna. (Schumacher is ranked 2nd in my model, both agree that Prost was not the #1 performer despite being placed #1 in many other years).

– 2004 goes to Schumacher, not Alonso. Schumacher is again ranked 2nd in my model, but it is tight between these two. As discussed earlier, it’s possible (or even likely) Schumacher’s end of year would have been stronger had he not already wrapped up the title.

In both of these seasons, my top performer had a teammate change mid-season that swung things decisively in their favour, perhaps giving an indication of one area in which the 2 models differ. Alternatively, perhaps Schumacher is just ranked higher overall in the F1metrics model, possibly due to differences in how his Mercedes comeback is analysed.

The constructors titles are also incredibly similar, with another agreement rate of 28/30. The two exceptions are:

– 1995 goes to Benetton, not Williams. My model thinks that this one is incredibly close. Strangely, this change is the opposite way to what is expected if Schumacher is indeed ranked higher in their model, as a better Schumacher would naturally imply that his car was worse.

– 2003 goes to Williams, not McLaren. Both models agree that actual champions Ferrari did not have the best car, and that it was a genuine 3 way fight.

In short they have a high level of agreement based on this specific criteria. However, the results from the 2 models diverge more when ranking less capable drivers (at least partly because there have been many “good” drivers over the history of the sport with similar abilities.

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